Who’s Not Talking About Bin Laden?

On May 1, President Barack Obama announced to a live television audience the death of Osama bin Laden.  It was a seminal moment in both the nearly ten year old “War on Terror” and in American history.  However, the days following bin Laden’s death have been filled with missteps that would make even a first-year public relations student’s stomach turn.

The key point in a crisis or important news situation is to have one voice and only that voice should speak. Therefore, no confusion would be caused.  That hasn’t been the case post-bin Laden’s death. CIA Director Leon Panetta opened up a can of worms when he said to NBC News that, “ultimately,” a photo of the dead Al Qaeda leader would be shown. Panetta did several other interviews, including one with Time magazine. Senator Max Baucus, a Democrat from Montana, even stated that he expected a photograph would be released “fairly soon.”

On Wednesday, the White House decided NOT to release a photo because they didn’t want to be seen as showboating.

Panetta and Baucus’ words were only part of the issue. Another issue was the actual story of what happened the night bin Laden was killed. Initial reports were that one of bin Laden’s wives was used as a human shield and was killed. Then she wasn’t dead, only wounded. Even the press secretary admitted that he was even confused with all the stories going around.

White House press secretary Jay Carney told reporters that initial information about the raid on the terrorist leader’s compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, was released “with great haste” to inform the public about the operation.

Information released with “great haste?” There’s the problem. As any PR pro knows, you never go to a news conference or media availability with potentially inaccurate information. And you certainly don’t give a statement with great haste. Too many voices in this situation have caused a ton of confusion and each spoken word has dug the White House in a deeper hole.

Am I being critical? Maybe. But during important events like this, I would rather see the White House wait and get it all right than rush and be mostly wrong. Unfortunately, the damage is done.

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  • Anonymous

    Great thoughts! Especially in this day and age, it’s important to make sure all news is streamlined in terms of messaging, but it has and will continue to be all over the place. I find that scattered accounts leads me to believe that clearly we have not heard the true accurate account of what happened. And I don’t think we ever will. Time to move on and learn from this I guess.

    • Thanks Tim!
      We may never know the exact facts, but that doesn’t bother me. I would have rather seen the White House be as accurate and possible. Have a few talking points then gather what could be said and relay that.
      Politics are a slippery slope… helps if inaccurate accounts don’t make it more slick.

  • Obviously this has been the news of the week and probably month and probably will be the news of the year too. As this was the major concern for Americans, now they are probably relieved somewhat I guess.

  • Great post. I wholeheartedly agree that crisis news, or any news for the matter, should not be delivered in great haste, or by multiple parties. It looks clumsy – and, I agree, some of the interviews and misinformation out there reflects a little poorly on the administration. I do think have multiple spokespeople is messy and the biggest flaw in the whole thing.

    However, I think we need to step out of our PR box and be realistic about this particular piece of news. We can’t even begin to understand the implications of news like this on a broader scale, beyond news reports. I would guess that for multiple reasons (safety, sources, participants, etc.) they had to make haste to release information before anyone else broke the news. This news was just too important, too substantial and too sensitive to be released by anyone other than the White House. When you weigh the pros and cons of both scenarios (releasing the news a tad early, or playing catch up to someone else’s news break) I think they chose the right path. They HAD to get out in front of this issue.

    We can go always go back to the PR text book and point out errors in communication strategies on a number of topics and situations, but this one is different. It just is. I’m not sure there is any real damage done here either – no matter what the administration does at this point there is always going to be debate on their protocol. In this political climate, which the media has fueled, there are always going to be non-believers, politics, bad news reports, blame, finger wagging and so on. It may not be a popular opinion, but I give the White House a pass on this one.

    • MaxwellStevens

      I agree with you, Paige. Overall, if there is time for fact check and review to be absolutely sure every detail is accurate, then it’s worth the delay.

      This was not one of those situations. It’s called the “fog of war” for a reason. All of the details aren’t clear until hours, days, months or even years after the action has ended. Sometimes, there are still disagreements on exact details years later. What you see and hear depends on where you sit and each one of us has a different chair.

      In some things, we need to allow errors in early reporting and not jump on differences in smaller details. Reporters and politicians have created an exacting expectation that bloggers and web commenters now amplify. We all need to take a breath and look instead at the intent of the error. If there is deception or malice intended, then let the feeding frenzy begin. If it’s just an error or misjudgment, then base decisions on what they do once the error is known. It seems that corrections are being made and clarifications are being shared openly in this situation.

      The big facts were correct. I say let them be human and forgive their small mistakes.

      • Maxwell,
        As I mentioned in my reply to Paige, I don’t have an issue with getting information out there. But I don’t believe that we need to “allow” errors in early reporting. The White House is taking some hits because of who was killed, who was armed, etc.
        You are absolutely right that the biggest fact was correct: bin Laden was killed. I’d like to see more accuracy moving forward however.
        That being said, thanks so much for taking the time to read and comment!

      • Agreed. Loved your last paragraph. We all have to accept responsibility for a 24/7 news cycle and understand the ramifications of that. Evolving stories are part of that. I do appreciate the White House for coming out with their errors, instead of sweeping them under the rug. That’s good practice.

    • Hi Paige,
      I understand where you are coming from. Sure, the administration needed to definitely stay out in front. I’m coming at this from two angles. One from a PR, but the other from the media side. I’ve worked in both fields. The one thing that always bothered me was when information wasn’t accurate from a spokesperson.
      The issue for me is when the press secretary says that even he is confused. The president said bin Laden was killed, etc. Why not have the daily press briefing, gets some factual information and then say, “We’ll continue to get more as we debrief our SEAL team.”
      Yes, the cycle of news is very quick. That speaks to making sure the information is good.
      Thanks for reading and commenting!

      • Anonymous

        This whole conversation is a good one but I am with Jas on this. The current regime has been uber-calculated on everything and wouldn’t speak until they had all the facts out there. Why change now?

        You look like a twit speaking out both sides of your mouth and lose credibility.

        • Like I said, I do think having multiple speakers was sloppy.

          But, I still think it’s very easy to criticize the White House on their efforts when you aren’t privvy to all of the information about the potential fallout of all the possible scenarios. It’s easy for PR folks to say “I’d do it better,” when we are a safe distance away. The same goes for politics. It’s easy for Sarah Palin to say “I’d do it better,” when she isn’t in the actual situation.

          Why not give the White House the benefit of the doubt that they took the best possible path when they released the news?

          We comment in hindsight when we comment on issues like this – none of us were there in those break rooms and none of us know what happened. We don’t who had the information or if anyone was threatening to come out with it. In a situation where the media is clamoring for sensationalism and hardly fact checking their own work, and news is breaking at lightening speeds through online media and social networks, I don’t think we have the luxury of time that we used to have – especially when the news can impact the lives of innocent people around the world.

          In the grand scheme of the magnitude of this world event, Ill take some relatively small factual errors if it means we released the news *mostly* on our own terms.

          • Anonymous

            Paige, case in point is that this regime has taken their sweet ass time with everything to get the correct facts out there. Remember the attempted hijacking when they were on a Hawaiian vacation. A response was within 3 days. They could have waited until the morning for this and got their stories straight.

            Take the White House out of this and call this a company doing the same thing. You would chastise them for this especially in light of things with companies like BP.

            So spare me the benefit of the doubt lingo. We live in a constant news cycle if you are breaking news have your shit together especially if you represent the head of the free world.

          • Agree to disagree. At least I wasn’t rude about it.

          • Anonymous

            Nothing rude here, just stating plain facts with no agenda.

  • Txriverlady

    The problem here is not the things coming from the WH but the media trying to out scoop the other and asking first one and then the other and none of them authorized to speak for the President.

    • Well, that comes back to the White House then. It is the administration’s responsibility to make certain that there is only one voice. Panetta did not have to talk and could have been instructed to speak only when all the facts were as certain as possible.

      • Totally agree with this point Jason. I don’t know why they gave him a platform.

  • Richpiippo

    This is what happens when your politicians act like celebrities instead of doing their jobs. Lately, so many of our elected officials have a unhealthy need to be in the media, making uninformed statements on all kinds of topics. The white house can only react to the bad choices made by other elected officials, the voters must discipline those elected officials because the white house really cannot punish them.